Zinfandel: A California Original That’s Worth Championing

ZinfandelIt’s hard to believe that nearly a quarter-century has passed since ZAP was formed.

“ZAP” may sound like a sound effect from the campy “Batman” television series, but in this context those letters are an acronym that stands for Zinfandel Advocates and Producers.

ZAP was founded in 1991 at a time when what I like to call “real Zinfandel” was taking a backseat to the sweet blush wine known as White Zinfandel. I can’t tell you how many times I’d order a glass of Zinfandel, only to be served a glass of White Zin.

No offense to White Zin — a wine that continues to be enjoyed by millions of Americans — but it’s the polar opposite of red Zinfandel in aroma and flavor.

White Zin is sweet and fun. Red (real) Zin is dry (although its fruit flavors can give the impression of sweetness) and rugged. It’s sometimes hard to believe that two wines that are so different could be made from the same grape.

ZAP came along with the idea of regaining respect and appreciation for red (real) Zinfandel. Its founders rallied both producers and consumers, began staging tasting events, and through the years grew to become an important advocacy organization.

It’s also a go-to resource for all-things-Zinfandel, a true California variety in that it has been planted in virtually all the grape-growing areas of the state, in the widest possible variety of soils and topography, and in climates from cool to hot.

After more than a century of experimentation, nine regions have emerged as predominant sites for the varietal. Courtesy of ZAP, let’s take a look at those regions…

  • Bay Area — This is a radically diverse area, both in its geography and proximity to the ocean, creating a variety of microclimates. It includes the Livermore Valley and Contra Costa County to the east of San Francisco, and the Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara Valley to the south.
  • Central Coast — The Central Coast Region includes the Zinfandel growing areas of Monterey County, San Luis Obispo County (including Paso Robles), Edna Valley and Santa Barbara. Each of these areas contains vineyards that share the effects of coastal breezes, which moderate the warmth of the summer and early fall. Most of the soil is rocky and gravelly. Zinfandel was planted in the Central Coast by the mid-1880s, and the region has a long history of winemaking, dating back to the advent of the missionaries in the 18th century.
  • Lodi — The Lodi appellation has a classic Mediterranean climate featuring warm days and cool evenings. It’s situated directly east of San Francisco Bay at the edge of the Sacramento River Delta, where cool “delta breezes” provide reliable natural “air conditioning” throughout the growing season. The climate allows Lodi growers to consistently produce delicious, full-flavored wines that contain a refreshing natural acidity. Historically, Lodi vineyards were developed in the fine sandy loam soils surrounding the community of Lodi. It’s there, along the banks of the Mokelumne River, where the majority of Lodi’s century-old, own-rooted Zinfandel vineyards lie.
  • Central Valley — This American Viticultural Area stretches from Colusa County in the north to Madera County in the south, and includes Clarksburg, Diablo Grande, Dunnigan Hills, Green Valley, Lodi, Madera, Meritt Island, River Junction, Salado Creek, Seiad Valley, Solano County and Suisun Valley.
  • Mendocino and Lake Counties — This is considered to be California’s wine growing frontier, filled with the homesteads of many family wineries. Mendocino County’s southern border is north of San Francisco, immediately north of Sonoma County. Lake County is located southeast of Mendocino County. Bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west and covered in great part by the rugged Coastal Range, this is a warmer growing region than its northerly location would suggest. The warmth is due to the mountain ranges that shelter interior valleys from the cool ocean breezes.
  • Napa Valley — This 40-mile long valley, which stretches in a northwesterly direction from the city of Napa in the south to Calistoga in the north, is considered one of the most diverse growing regions in California. More than 30 different soils have been identified here, including soils of alluvial, volcanic and maritime origin, ranging from well-drained gravelly loams to moisture-retaining silty clay. This diverse group of soils and exposures, as well as three different climate zones, provide a variety of distinctive grape-growing environments. Zinfandel vineyards are spread from well-drained, rich, red clay loam hillsides to gravelly benchlands on the valley floor.
  • Sierra Foothills — Located east of Sacramento in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, this region includes Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Mariposa, Nevada, Placer, Tuolumne and Yuba Counties. Its colorful Gold Rush tales and long agricultural history make this a fascinating Zinfandel area to explore. Some of the earliest documented Zinfandel vineyards were planted here between 1852 and 1869, and some still survive today, protected by their remote locations. Vineyards in the Sierra Foothills possess unique decomposed granite soils that are found nowhere else in the world. Nearly all of the Zinfandel vineyards are at fairly high elevation (from 1,200 to 3,500 feet), which places them above the fog and gives access to sunshine.
  • Sonoma County — Sonoma County lies north of San Francisco and is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean. The county runs parallel to Napa Valley, and is separated from it by the Mayacamas range.
  • Southern California — This region is extremely important historically, as it was once the center of California winemaking, when missionaries planted their first vineyard at Mission San Diego in 1769. In the Cucamonga Valley, near Los Angeles, the warm climate and sandy soil is well suited to Zinfandel, but agricultural use of the land has given way in large part to profitable urban development. To the south, the unique microclimate of Temecula is aided by its 1,500-foot elevation. Temecula’s Zinfandel vineyards bask in the renowned Southern California sun during the day, while the elevation brings cool afternoon and evening breezes.

Like other varieties, Zinfandel exhibits a number of qualities (aromas and flavors) no matter where it’s grown. But specific climates also yield region-specific characteristics, and you can read about those on the ZAP website.

Three regions are represented in our latest Zinfandel Sampler: the Central Coast (specifically, Paso Robles), Lodi, and Sonoma County (specifically, the Dry Creek Valley). Together, they provide a tasty overview of California’s iconic red wine variety — a wine you may want to join ZAP in championing among your friends. Order while you can.

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